In her semi-regular column Real Life of a Pastry Chef, pastry sous chef Mary Boehne of Cielo (999 North Second Street; 314-881-5800) at the Four Seasons Hotel dishes on secrets of the trade and about the industry as a whole. This week's topic: Thanksgiving.
Every year I am asked the same question: What dessert are you bringing for Thanksgiving?
I try to explain that, first of all, I don't bake at home. By the end of my day, I am tired and can easily settle for a bowl of homemade spaghetti and a scoop of Ted Drewes for dessert. Generally speaking, if I am going to a holiday party, I will cook something savory and leave the sweet treats to the home baker. Call it a cop-out if you will, but the expectation of a pastry chef to bring dessert to the party is wearisome.
However, I do have a few thoughts on how to plan an appropriate Thanksgiving menu, especially if you're struggling with whether to go super traditional or mix it up, and a few insights to share about what it's like to be a chef at the most food-centric time of year.
In my experience, Thanksgiving is generally played safe. No one would run the risk of ruining Thanksgiving meal. Can you imagine if Aunt Mildred brought ahi tuna steaks instead of a turkey, or Cousin Frank tried replacing green-bean casserole with curried tofu? Even the thought of someone leaving hungry from a Thanksgiving meal is utterly unacceptable.
Here are a couple low-stakes ways to fuse the old with the new. If it's too nerve-wracking to completely switch out the pie varieties, try to class them up a little. Top your pumpkin pie with cinnamon whipped cream, or mix caramel into your apple pie. Throw some dried cranberries into your pecan pie with a drizzle of chocolate on top. Making the small things that much more special can go a long way.
You have to know your audience. My company puts on a huge Thanksgiving brunch every year. We will provide food for upward of 500 guests from all different backgrounds and ethnicities. This allows us the opportunity to experiment with the traditional Thanksgiving lineup. We can provide a plethora of options while satisfying every guest. I can get away with not serving the traditional pumpkin pie, but instead an almond pine nut tart, Key lime pie shooters or cappuccino tulip cups (all of which will be on the menu this year). On the flip side, we also provide full Thanksgiving dinners to go. We provide the turkey and all the fixins without the cooking mess. This is an example of when the traditional approach is more appropriate. We aren't going to send sushi home for a family that is looking for a turkey. The options for dessert are pumpkin, apple and pecan pie. Traditional, yes; boring, no. My goal is to provide the best apple pie guests have ever had for Thanksgiving. I want them to look at the pumpkin pie and be blown away with how beautiful it is. It's no small feat -- I'm essentially trying to box up the feeling of Thanksgiving and deliver it to them.
We chefs work all through the holidays, generally missing those days with their families or rescheduling on a Sunday or Monday so we can also take part in our own holiday festivities. Sometimes it can feel like a catch-22: We have to care enough about the holiday tradition in order to provide it for others, but not care enough about missing out on it with our own families. It is something that I used to struggle with more when I first got into the industry. Now, I take advantage of the fact that I can reserve time with my family on days that aren't consumed with rushing around from one family's house to another.
I have found the best time to celebrate with family and friends is after the new year. It is the time of year when local chefs have "survivor parties." They've survived the chaos of buffets, holiday events, menu planning and late nights worrying about food cost. January is the most welcome month of the year for chefs; it provides much-needed recuperation time for kitchens and cooks. It is what keeps us looking ahead through the tumultuous insanity of the holidays. We take advantage of the fact that no one can afford to go out for a few more paychecks. It gives us just enough time to gear up for Valentine's Day, Mardi Gras, Easter, then Mother's Day, closely followed by wedding season, in time to kick off summer and to start the insanity all over again.
In spite of the chaos, I welcome Thanksgiving and the holiday season. I find fall flavors the most complex and fun to experiment with. Don't be afraid to try something new this holiday season, especially if you have the right audience to try it with. You never know what will stick and become a new tradition.
Check back with Gut Check every couple of weeks to learn more about the real life of a pastry chef and about the challenges of the baking industry as a whole.
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